1 Cor. 3:5-15 2.12.23
Dan and I learned the absolute necessity of a strong foundation in a painful way. The home we bought in Hickory, North Carolina sat at the low point of our block. It sat on a lot where the builders had deposited trees that were cut down to build the homes and then covered them up with multiple feet of soil. Our home was built on top of the pile of buried trees in the 70’s. Over the decades, those trees decomposed, as any tree does. We were unaware of any of this…but when we were ready to sell that home, an inspector saw jacks in the crawl space which had previously been in place to stabilize parts of the house. If that was not enough to make us question how the inspector had missed them when we bought the house, apparently the house had shifted so much that some of the jacks had been knocked out of place. Of course, we had noticed that our living room tilted down, sloping away from the rest of the house. And we had seen a crack in a couple of walls of the brick home. We learned that our foundation was so unstable that at least 10 large pylons (very large, strong supports) were needed, pylons which had to be drilled down into the earth in order to stabilize the house. Several of the pylons had to go down 15 feet or more to reach solid rock, and the price was by the foot. The cost was overwhelming and took away any profit we might have made on the sale. The builder had not built our house upon the rock, but on unstable ground!
Perhaps you remember the parable Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew about the importance of building a house on solid ground. That is what the wise person does. In contrast, the foolish person builds on unstable ground, or sand, and the house can not withstand rains and winds. Remember that a parable is a short story with a lesson to be learned. He was making it clear that we need a solid foundation if we are to expect that we will be able to withstand the torments which blow upon us in life.
Paul also makes use of an architectural metaphor in his letter to the Christians in Corinth. He is writing to an entire community of believers, not it individuals. At the beginning of chapter 3, he lays it out on the table—he tells them, “You are clearly just starting out on this journey of faith—I can tell because you are so divided. (Clearly divisions among humans are nothing new.) Some of you identify with Apollos (another early missionary for the gospel) and some of you identify with me. That is not the point! Don’t pick sides or divide yourselves into camps. Both of us are servants of God, charged with sharing God’s message of Christ. Both of us are needed, for we build on one another. We may be the builders, but God is the architect and Jesus is the foundation. The building – that is you, the community of believers, belongs to God, and Apollos and I are the co-workers, a team of builders who have been sent here by God to construct a community of faith founded on Jesus Christ.”
Paul seemed to be concerned that the various factions in the church were looking to their favorite missionary as the foundation of their community of faith. They were looking in the wrong direction. Neither Paul nor Apollos should be the foundation, just as any pastor or church leader should not be the foundation of his or her community of faith. I have heard before of churches with multiple pastors where church members select which Sundays to go to worship depending on whether or not their preferred preacher is preaching. Seems to be missing the point of coming to worship to hear the gospel proclaimed and to offer oneself in service to God!
According to Paul, the only foundation for a Christian community of faith is Jesus Christ. There are no other options. It is Jesus the crucified Son of God who was raised from the dead who is the reason for building a Christian church (and I do not mean the building, but the gathering of believers). It is Jesus who enables the church to differentiate itself from other kinds of communities of faith. Christ alone is the foundation upon which any Christian congregation should be based.
Paul identifies himself as the wise and skilled builder who laid the foundation for this congregation when he first preached and taught the message of Christ to this group of mostly Gentile converts to Christianity. The congregation is young, maybe only five years old when this letter was written. Paul had drawn up the plans and poured the foundation. Then the leaders of the church, the builders, or sub-contractors, get to work, using a variety of materials—Paul’s list includes some strong and durable building materials and some building materials which are flammable and unable to withstand the fire of the inspectors. The sub-contractors must make use of the right kind of resources needed to build upon the foundation of Christ. Those resources are the teachings of Christ himself! Any church-builders must insist on using appropriate materials like love of neighbor, peacemaking inside and outside, grace and forgiveness, presence and empathy, prayer and study.
The world has witnessed the necessity of using quality construction materials as over 12,000 buildings in Istanbul, Turkey collapsed in the recent earthquakes. Apparently, Turkish builders have been notorious for skirting the country’s construction codes, even paying fines in order to build with shoddy materials or taking short cuts that are not up to code. According to the Baltimore Sun, experts in geology and engineering have long warned about the danger of such lax construction practices in recent decades in order to build, build, build. What might the death toll have been if buildings had been constructed with quality materials? There is no way to know for sure, but David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning at University College London said, “This is a disaster caused by shoddy construction, not by an earthquake.”
How does a church keep our work up to code? How do we follow wise building practices? Perhaps we are all should identify as builders of our community of faith, as the sub-contractors who must continue to keep our work up to code, for we have been entrusted with this community of faith named Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church. We are responsible for choosing the resources used for building up this body of Christ. Our mission focus, the teaching we provide, the places we spend our money, and the way we relate to one another are some of the choices we make which shape this “building” which belongs to the Great Architect.
Are they quality materials? Do our plans foster unity and not division? Do we apply the grace given by God as Paul did? That grace is not for our own edification. It is for the community around us. When the school behind us needs extra backpacks to start the school year for children who don’t have the needed supplies, you act. When the food pantry across the street needs to fill their shelves so our neighbors can eat, you act. When the new housing is completed directly across the street, will we see it as a liability or an asset? Will we welcome the presence of our new neighbors whether they are in rental units or in purchased townhomes? I hope so, for we are charged with the job of church-building, of being the church of Christ for the community around us. We must continue to hone our skills as church-builders.
Being built on the foundation of Jesus Christ means that it is Jesus who gives us stability as a church, not your pastor, not your session, not the most senior member of the congregation. It is Jesus our Savior who is the unifying force despite the existence of things which might divide us, like worship practices, attitudes about people with a different sexual orientation, preferences for one type of communication over another, or being a congregation physically separated from one another. Being built on the foundation of Jesus Christ means we pay attention to the factors which make a congregation strong and healthy, those factors which make a congregation thrive as God’s building– even with differences among us. We pay attention to what we are doing right and to what we are not doing. We pay attention to the dirt which has built up on our foundation, dirt that needs to be cleared away so God’s building remains stable. The dirt could be conflict or pain or past rejection by other believers or having been burned by another congregation or its leaders. Those kinds of things can cover up the strong foundation like those decomposing trees covered up the solid rock under our house. We do need the dirt movers like the huge machines at work across the street. We need to clear the way so that the structure, the supports, the way we operate as a church family allow for transparency and trust. We need to be able to trust one another to do what we say we will do, to fulfill our roles as sub-contractors in God’s building, for we are the workers, the church-builders responsible for the stability of the various nooks and crannies of our life together.
If we don’t tend to our young people, who will show them the very foundation of our community? If we don’t tend to our seniors, who will love them through loneliness or illness or decreased mobility or depression? If we don’t tend to our parents who are yanked by needs pulling them in all directions, who will let them know that they are valued and loved, that giving their best is all they can do, and that one positive step is worth it? If we don’t tend to our relationship with our partners in this building or our partners in other parts of the world, then what good is our shared faith in Christ? If we don’t tend to God’s building, if we don’t keep it attached to the foundation which is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God’s building may end up standing on shaky ground, we may find ourselves without relevance or without meaning or without purpose. If we don’t tend to God’s building, using quality materials which stem from the teachings of Christ, we are risking a crash like the house that was built on the sand, or like the buildings which could not withstand the earthquakes.
Jesus is the foundation for God’s building, the church, the community of believers wherever it is. We can be the workers, the sub-contractors who maintain the health and stability of this building we have inherited. It does not matter our numbers. Big does not mean healthy. Big does not mean stable. How many times have we heard stories of big Christian “empires” which collapsed due to the downfall of a well-loved pastor– often due to mishandling of money or sexual relationships? We can be small and thriving, small and stable, small and vibrant in our ministry both near and far. If you are active on Facebook, you know that we have greatly increased our reach through social media in the last year. People are impacted by our messaging across the country, in Africa and Cuba and maybe more places around the world. We have just become a church of less than 100 members, 94 to be exact. By my count, we have the possibility of approximately 56 active and involved members and friends of the church who can be counted on as sub-contractors at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian. A vast majority of those 56 individuals are active and working as church-builders in a variety of ways. For several years now we have finished the year in the black and not in the red despite our annual deficit budgets that can begin the year assuming we will be between $20,000 and $30,000 short. In addition to the non-profit which rents office and meeting space from us, we share our building now with three other congregations, two of them meeting twice a week and one meeting monthly for the time being. We are funding the cost for the pastor of our partner church in Cuba to learn about our connections to Ghana and Kenya as we travel together at the end of next month. Founded on Jesus Christ, we are small and thriving, small and stable, small and vibrant. There continue to be ways to improve, and our ministry team retreat at the end of this month will enable us to address ways to keep using quality construction materials. Let’s keep it up. Amen.